We've all been on trips where plans change suddenly, resulting in a scramble to quickly revise flights, change hotels and rethink when to return the rental car. You may assume that if you return a car early you'll get a credit for any unused days, or you may think that returning a car later than planned will simply add extra days to your bill. But it may not be that simple.
When to Return Your Rental Car
Whether you're a member of the car rental company's loyalty program or you walked up to the rental counter, when you drove away in a vehicle you entered into a contract with the car rental company.
In exchange for a comparatively small amount of money, the rental company provides you with the use of a very expensive asset. In fact, rental car company statements consistently show less than $40 in revenue per vehicle per day. When you depart with a rental car, you've accepted all liability for an asset that might cost $30,000 or more to replace.
For the rental car company, the rental agreement is about revenue certainty. Consequently, the agency wants to hold you to the contract. If you break the terms of the contract by returning the car early or late, you can expect that the company will want to make some change to the contract.
If your car rental is cut short or extended, the base rate for the vehicle may change. Understand that your rental car has a price guarantee as reserved. If you reserve a vehicle for a 24-hour period, the rate is valid for that 24-hour period. Change the pick up or return time, and you may inadvertently create a situation where the base price changes.
How Returning a Rental Car Early or Late Can Affect Pricing
At AutoSlash, we're frequently asked how scheduling changes may impact pricing. Here's a partial list of situations that can trigger a price change:
- Have a weekend deal that requires a Saturday night? If you return the car before Sunday, you can expect to pay a much higher daily rate, since it's no longer a weekend rental.
- Have a discounted rate that's based on three or more days but you end up returning the car after two days? The discount is going to vanish.
- Have a weekly rental from an airport location but you return the car after five days? The base rate will stay the same, but the per-day airport taxes will be removed for unused days.
- Have a six-day weekly rental from an airport location but return the car a day late? The base rate will still be a weekly rental, but the per-day airport taxes will be added for the extra day.
- Have a weekly rental but you return after only four days? That weekly rate will become a daily rate, and you will probably pay more.
The upshot is that there are a lot of scenarios where the rental rate can change due if you return the car at a different time than planned.
Contract Modification Fees
If you return your rental car at a time other than what is on your rental agreement, the company might charge a Contract Modification fee. While the rental car company will ordinarily charge only for days used, there might be additional fees involved with changing the contract after pickup.
Early Return and Late Return Fees
You may assume a rental car company would love to get its car back early. But remember the rental car contract? If you return a vehicle early, the company may not be able to rent it out for those days. There's also depreciation, the vicious daily expense for rental car firms. Depreciation and car disposition costs the average rental car company more than $10 per day, per car.
If you return a vehicle late, the rental car company might not be able to serve the next customer, especially if you rented a specialty or rare vehicle. In that case, the rental car company would get stuck compensating the customer who couldn't be served.
Dollar and Thrifty: Sister firms Dollar and Thrifty are the most transparent about Contract Modification fees in their rental terms. The company charges a flat $10 to amend the rental agreement, and also addresses Early Return and Late Return fees. To avoid these fees, it's key to call the agency as soon as you know you'll be returning the car at a different time.
Dollar and Thrifty state that the one-time Early Return Fee ($25) will be applied when you return a vehicle more than 24 hours early. Although the company won't bill you for unused days, it also hasn't been able to rent your vehicle to another customer. Once again, the fee can be decreased if you simply call in to give the company more time to plan.
The Late Return fee ($16 per day) can also be decreased by giving Dollar/Thrifty more time to plan. The fee is in addition to the extra rental cost, as the failure to return the car on time may cause interruptions for future rentals.
Other Major Firms: The same guidelines apply to other major rental firms: If you have an issue where a car rental contract may need to be modified, contact the rental car company immediately to minimize fees and other charges. Always document your communications with the agency.
- Avis charges a $10 service fee to modify contracts and starts applying the late return fee 7 hours after the scheduled return ($10 per day in addition to the extra day fees) unless notified in advance
- Budget (owned by Avis) also starts applying the late return fee 7 hours after the scheduled return ($10 per day in addition to the extra day fees) unless notified in advance.
- Enterprise requires customers to contact the original rental location to modify a rental contract.
- Hertz (which owns Dollar/Thrifty) starts applying the late return fee 12 hours after the scheduled return ($12 per day in addition to the extra day fees) unless notified in advance.
- National only allows extensions for members of the Emerald Club loyalty program. Drivers should always enter their frequent renter numbers when making reservations, as agents may have more flexibility with loyal customers.
Options for Extending a Car Rental
Want to extend a rental? You have multiple options. We recommend the following steps to provide a price comparison:
Consider returning your vehicle on time and pick up a new one. Need a quick quote? Our system can send you a quote with discounted rates 24 hours a day. Get quotes before making that call to the rental car company.
Call the rental car company's customer hotline for the existing rental. Ask them what would be the total cost to extend the contract, including the extra days, taxes, and any fees imposed for modifying the contract. The basic fee for extra hours and days should already be listed on the rental agreement.
Changes to Reservations Policies at Rental Car Companies
- Avis Changes to Reservations
- Budget General Policies
- Enterprise Changes to Reservations
- Dollar General Policies
- Hertz Domestic Late Return Policy
- Hertz European Union Policy
- National Extension Policy
- Thrifty General Policies
- What Happens If You Pick Up a Rental Car Early
- Why You Probably Should Not Prepay for Your Rental Car